The Lord's view

The Picador Book of Cricket

Edited by Ramachandra Guha <em>Picador, 476pp, £20</em>

ISBN 0330396

When so many cricket books try to blend into their natural habitat by having green jackets, Ramachandra Guha's anthology of cricket writing stands out by appearing colourless. Its jacket is white, the typography lean and elegant, and 19th-century illustrations - of W G Grace and Lord's - adorn the front and back. The readers are thus forewarned: this is a tribute to cricket writing from another age. We are entering holy territory here and must speak in hushed tones: no flag-waving, no beer cans and no room for the kind of flamboyance and enthusiasm displayed by cricket fans from the subcontinent. We are at Lord's, not in Eden Gardens, Calcutta.

Guha laments the disappearance of the (purple) prose of Neville Cardus, the insight of Jack Fingleton, the freshness of Ray Robinson, the erudition of C L R James and the grace of R C Robertson-Glasgow. When such figures dominated cricket writing, words mattered; broadcasting and writing about the game hadn't yet been taken over by retired cricketers. Guha gives ample space to these old masters, and believes that crafted prose is no longer possible in these faster times. In the days of instant replays and multiple camera shots, would it make sense to evoke the lyricism of a perfectly executed square cut?

Guha thinks not. That assumption is a great pity, because it allows him to play safe - with a straight bat, as it were - and the end result is like watching a Geoff Boycott innings: lots of runs, most useful in the long run, but with few flashes of brilliance. Guha is culpable, too, in failing fully to acknowledge the decline of England as a cricketing power.

Yet Guha seemed an encouraging choice to edit The Picador Book of Cricket. He has not only written extensively about the environment, anthropology and history, but, as a reformed Marxist, he has become the bete noire of India's fashionable left. And there are some inspired inclusions here: not least a piece on an American baseball player whose claim to fame was clean bowling K S Ranjitsinhji first ball; another on a swashbuckling Fijian with an improbably long name; a moving elegy by Matthew Engel remembering Colin Milburn, the former England opening batsman; and Sujit Mukherjee's evocative tribute to a Jesuit priest in Patna.

Guha makes a virtue of the pitifully small presence of writers from countries other than England and Australia. (In that, his anthology is a quantum leap, because earlier collections did even less.) The argument that the former colonies are skilled at playing, but not at writing, would have been valid if it were true. This edition, with its emphasis on classicism, cries out for K N Prabhu, the former sports editor of the Times of India, who has justly been called the Cardus of India. New Zealand's Dick Brittenden and Pakistan's Omar Kureishi are other writers who could have been included.

In the relatively short section on memorable matches, space could perhaps have been made for matches you remember for reasons other than cricket. Robert Winder's reports for the Independent from the last World Cup, particularly his heartbreaking account of the boorish behaviour of Scottish fans towards a West Indies side in Leicester, would have pointed out the new dimension that is cricket hooliganism, of which we have seen more this summer. And if former cricketers turned writers are welcome - Richie Benaud and Jack Fingleton are justly included - then some of Sunil Gavaskar's moving pieces of his early days playing in the Shivaji Park, the nursery of Indian cricket, merited space.

In his introduction, Guha writes that his yardstick is literature, not journalism. He points out that Martin Amis has covered Wimbledon and Nick Hornby writes about football, and implies that contemporary authors are not as interested in cricket. Has he forgotten his compatriots, Amit Chaudhury, Dom Moraes and Mukul Kesavan, and, beyond India, the writing of Harold Pinter, Thomas Keneally and Melvyn Bragg? Bolder still would have been the inclusion of Beryl Bainbridge's entertaining essay about her family and its relationship with cricket, or Emma Levine's reports from the 1996 World Cup - not because it would have been politically correct, but because it would have demonstrated that the game's appeal is not gender-specific.

But you can't make a Richards out of a Boycott. Instead of being an adventurous romp through the world of cricket writing, Guha's anthology has settled for the safer option of being a definitive syllabus. That is the collection's strength, but also its ultimate failing, because it remains unlikely that another attempt on this scale will be made in the near future. After all, Oxford (1983) and Faber (1987) have both published cricket anthologies. Guha may take it as a compliment that his anthology sits well alongside those volumes. But today, when even Lord's has a space-age press box, it would surely not have been asking too much for him to have chanced his arm a little, gone for a win in the overs allowed, rather than played for the predictable draw?

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The urban guerrillas Britain forgot